Respite and Recovery in Lone PineSleeping in a sprinkler does not allow for a good nights rest. I finished the night sleeping on the sidewalk and a solid portion of the day was spent watching a monolithic dust storm over the dry Owens Lake bed, bog up the horizon and the entire road en route to Death Valley. I retreated into Lone Pine’s shoe box sized library for shelter to wait for the storm to pass. Soon after my arrival, I shared introductions with a guy whose shaved head, skinny figure, and tan skin mimicked my own. Impressed with my adventure, he took pity on my physical condition and offered his accommodations for two nights rest before my travels continued. This came as quite a surprise and I took him up on his offer.
Lush, long green grasses and shrubbery decorated the side of the road and the nearly flat plain of grayish white sands. The Owens River flowed deep... deep and dark in color and full from spring’s early season runoff. It is obvious that as the road continued, change was eminent and for this change, I road on. The sanded floor turned into a pebbled carpet of green vegetation, soft for the eyes to observe against a dry, white lakebed. Soon the sands returned, choking off and limiting the green growth of spring. Stones and leafless twigs paired up with tumbleweeds for a spell, but before long that bond, too, was broken by warm gusts of air. The day is my hottest one yet and I am beginning to sense that heat works against everything here. Near the door of Death Valley, the soaring temperatures and gusting winds have no equivalent foe and eventually break down everything to fibrous shards and dust.
Absurdity to Obscurity
A couple miles out of town the valley became a basaltic lava bed, dirty grayish brown in color. The road whoopty-doed for several miles. Then the mountains transformed their color from a golden khaki to a charcoal gray entwined with a pale olive green hue to the range. State road 136 merged with the 190 and gently inclined itself for the next six miles. It must have been close to noon before I was able to take a shade break beneath a gigantic mileage sign. This sign at mile 18 afforded me about four feet of shade where I enjoyed an orange and a coke. There would no more shade again for ten miles, at which point the road cut a gulley right through a hill. Joshua trees dotted the gray horizon to the west and to the south.
At mile 36, I strode off the road to a rock pile formation that overlooked a black rimmed butte. When I first sat down, a fat, wide bellied, stub tailed, square headed lizard darted out and back in amongst the rocks. A good number of birds cooed and whistled beautiful tunes from their ground level nests. The senses of my ears and eyes caught up with nature, but my body was flushed from the change in temperature. “Phew…” I moaned. “Where’s my sunblock?” I rummaged to find the lotion and chugged down several gulps of tepid water. “Ahhhh… delicious!” The road steadily climbed up to mile 40 and then flattened off for the next six miles. At the top, the road crosses into Death Valley National Park before sling-shotting down a massive, 2500 foot descent into Panamint Springs.
I pulled just up short of Panamint Springs and turned south onto a six mile long dirt road that dead ended at the Darwin Falls trailhead. Named after a local miner rather than a scientist, Darwin Falls is a peculiarly for Death Valley. As I will describe in a moment or two, the location is more like something the evolutionist would have enamored himself with and claimed as another holy grail site of natural phenomena and ecological importance, like he did with the Galapagos Islands. Dusk ended abruptly. I had but a handful of minutes to situate myself before the envelope of darkness was licked shut for the night. I abandoned everything but my headlamp on the far side of the oversized parking lot and strolled over to make acquaintances with a family having a campfire between their rusty white pickup truck and the hillside. A tall, beloted white man slurred some words when responding to my hellos. He wore a dirty t-shirt and his spare tire gut spilled out like a plumber’s butt spells fat ass. He wore ragged tennis shoes and wobbled to and fro with a can of Budweiser in his hand. His name was Bill and introduced his Native American wife, Gloria, who was just as drunk and just as shabby. Their eight or ten year old son told the story well. “He’s a faller,” the boy explained and I soon witnessed a couple of his dad’s tree trunk-like spills into the dirt. John was the oldest of the three kids and it was obvious he thought the world of his dad. “I’ll probably kill myself when my dad dies,” he said, and I was taken aback at that statement, but who was I to judge. Their story didn’t get more hopeful than that and so I retreated to the bike to prepare for sleep.
Light began to illuminate the parking lot and it was clear that the gentle wash narrowed out big time as the trail began. Soon it was scrunched down from 100 feet to 30 feet and then from 20 to 10. Bluish green lichen covered gray basalt walls that abruptly grew in stature as I continued along the path. Tall thickets choked all but the trail and brushed up against my arms and shoulders as I moved them aside. The canyon bottlenecked and the trail ended at an alcove with a shallow, ankle deep pool beneath a narrow, bisecting waterfall. Amongst other unseen critters, water skidders, frogs, and lizards all made the area their home. I scanned around for wildlife and found a square dotted lizard gnawing on the head and tail of a two and a half inch caterpillar. All at once the lizard decided to engulf the whole thing sucking it down like a snake works on its prey. Teetering on amazement of the breakfast ritual I just witnessed, I moseyed over to the left hand side of the canyon and scrambled up over some rocks and horizontal tree limbs. A minute or so later, there appeared an eight story cascading waterfall with two beautiful dipping pools at the base. While sketching a drawing of the falls, a man and lady hiked up past my point where they proceeded to bust out their flute and piccolo and make harmonious music at the base of the pools. Amazing!!
Exit the Mountains; Enter the Dragon
To say the least, I jumped at their generous offer. The speedy descent from Towne Summit was warm and dry and lasted but twenty minutes. Cars were gracious and moved aside around the few gentle turns. They passed easily as I hugged the road’s handlebar width wide shoulder. Off to the north eastern side of Death Valley a plume of hazy brown sky filled the desert floor and as time went on, the cloud grew larger and larger and closer and closer. Turns out it was a sandstorm and I was racing it towards Stovepipe Wells. Good fortune continued to root for the weary traveler as I pulled in to town a mere handful of minutes ahead of the all consuming monster. As the storm approached, the sky turned a nasty brown near the floor of the desert and chaos broke out all around. Suddenly, a camping tent was tumbling into the throat of the storm. While the tent disappeared, people ran in the direction of cars and motor homes for cover. Others who were too far from the confines of shelter, staggered and fought through the winds with their arms hiding their faces as particles of sand blasted them to who knows where! I tried to hide in the open shelter of the public pool, but quickly gathered my belongings and bee-lined it for the hotel’s restaurant. The dichotomy of my situation could not be more pronounced. One minute I was zipping down the heated pavement towards civilization, the next minute I am basically brought to
While having a salad and chatting about the storm with some people next to me, they purposed that I get the heck out of dodge and grab a ride in their truck up to Mesquite Springs campground where the dust storm was nonexistent. That sounded great to me because figured I had seen enough of the storm, which was predicted to lambaste the Wells on into the evening.
The campground at Mesquite Springs was surrounded by rocky cobbles, but before long, all visibility was gone. Evenings in Death Valley are quickly swallowed up by big darkness and chilly nights. One must be still for a good period to fully take in the changing hues of evening blues. And then if someone is not prepared with some kind of battery operated light in hand, a person can easily find themselves swamped up, bogged down, and floundering in the complete darkness of a desert night. One blessing about night is always the morning’s promise for hot coffee in the cup. The Whisperlite roared to life with vengeance over the noiseless dawn and brewed the fastest cup of camp coffee on this trip. I sipped the hot beverage while slowly and thought about what to do. After three cups, I decided to check out the local stuff and to visit Scotty’s Castle and the Ubehebe Crater. Later, I repacked the bike for a forty-five mile excursion along the western flanks of the Grapevine Mountains. Then I toured from the north end of Death Valley back to the centralized accommodations of Stovepipe Wells.
Adventures In Landscape
Over the next 33 miles, the pavement descended nearly 3000 feet. At one point, I coasted every bit of fourteen miles and barely needed to do anything but keep the bike pointed down the road. I was really enjoying the ride and having a wonderful time marveling at the country side. Feeling sporty I decided to ride three miles up the side of an alluvial fan into the entrance of Titus Canyon. The road through the canyon is actually the route of flash floods and portions of the road must be plowed anew when the wash deposits extensive material and debris across the route. Between the canyon walls there is silence, lest a crow squawk or an oriel sing. Bunches of crate paper thin, yellow tissue colored flowers grow in Titus Canyon. Protected and surrounded by thousands of fine, sliver thin prickly thorns, the small shrub unleashes a barrage of minuscular daggers upon anything that brushes up against it. Try to dust them away with your hand and, trust me, you’ll wish you had a set of tweezers to pick out each one individually for the next good portion of the day. Several prickly pear cacti had sprung to life in the canyon, as well. Easier to one’s nervous system and other senses, the prickly pears' vibrant purple blossoms stood out effortlessly against orange and brown bulges of cliff walls.
Strewn out below the mouth of Titus Canyon was a rocky wasteland of vital biological importance and although I did not know the ins and outs of it all, I figured that balance was the key to life in Death Valley. All shades and aspects of color occur in this portion of the valley. The mountains were like malted hills of melting ice cream intertwining with candle waxed flood plains, and a yogarty valley floor. Twenty four inch parsley-like plate trimmings sprouted about the rubbled grounds. Such descriptions allude to the alluvial fans that pour out of the mountainous gullies and the vegetation that grows on it. Interestingly, the world’s largest alluvial fan emanating from single source is in Death Valley near the town of Badwater.
Miles down the road, a sign pointed out the covered wagon trail of 1849. From there I continued pedaling west through the Devil’s Cornfield, past the sand dunes, and on into the shady patio of the pool at Stovepipe Wells. After a refreshing dip, I reversed my direction to retire for the night off the road near one of the taller bushes I could find at the base of the sand dunes. Due to a certain paranoia with snakes slithering under my sleeping bag at night in search of warmth, I zipped myself into the bivy sack to ensure no unwanted trespassers. Foolishness, for sure, but so are most superstitions.
Last Day on the Job
Invigorated by the dunes, I recollected my garments to begin the days ride.
My next stop was the highly anticipated visit to Salt Creek and the home of the Pupfish. Cyprinodon Salinus Salinus was once a freshwater fish that became trapped and isolated in Death Valley’s salt infested waters by the end of an ice age. There it did something that no other fish ever did. It adapted to its environs; soaring air and water temperatures coupled with some of the highest saline concentrations in the world! To top it off, they hibernate in an underground cave for nine months out of the year. Yet, from February through April, they live above ground to spawn in a creek that reaches maximum depth of like, a finger length. A professional photographer named Leon Jenson had a small tripod propped just above the water’s surface fishing for images of this fascinating overgrown guppy sized fish. In his soft demeanor, he marveled and elaborated on their existence and spoke of his long time desire to visit this site. Having witnessed my fill of scurrying tail waggers, I rode off; far from thinking I would see him again.
The road cut between wind-flattened hills and further descended, unnoticeably, into the depths of Death Valley. The temperature on this April day was 90 degrees. It was nearing lunchtime and there had been no shade to speak of when on the side of the road a little green sign appeared and read, “Elevation Sea Level.” Wow, I had done it!! A couple weeks earlier this adventure began from sea level at the coast and now I had returned to sea level some 350 miles inland. It seemed weird as I paused to capture in the moment. Taking off again, the inspiration was short lived. Within a mile or so I pulled over and leaned the bike against a mile marker, reflector post. There against the post I collapsed to my rear, exhausted. Thoughts of Jonah ran through my head. After he got spit out of the whale’s belly Johan sat frustrated on the beach beneath a wilted vine. My plight seemed similar. I was ka-put, spent, depleted, bonked, spanked… My body was shot and my emotions drained. This bicycle trip was over!!
I did not really know what I was going to do because seven miles remained to be covered before the small community of Furnace Creek. Several minutes passed before a bright orange service truck with Idaho plates came around the bend. I decided to wave a thumb at him for a ride. Unfortunately, he thought I was kidding until he looked in his rear view mirror and saw me waving it more frantically and figured I might be serious, which of course I was. At the convenience store in Furnace Creek I put my collapse on full display by lying down on a wide rock wall. With my knees bent and a hat over my face I simply fell asleep. Next thing I knew, someone was tapping me awake. It was Leon, the photographer. He told me that he had seen me napping and that he might as well do the same. So after his nap, he decided to pass me one of his business cards and tell me that he was on his way to Vegas. Well, I jumped on all over that fact and asked him if it would be possible to score a ride into Sin City, some 200 miles away. He said sure and we were off!!